An icon has passed on, and Whitney Houston was more than what that already lofty status means; she was music royalty, the legend of the legends. Simply, she was the voice that a higher power loans to a mortal maybe once every couple of centuries.
Untold numbers of people, from every generation, every genetic make-up, every country and every town in the world, were impacted by the music of Houston; it was hard not to be. Her talents were celestial, and regardless of her own inner turmoil, her gift to our lifetime will forever be held as sacred.
And for an entire nation, there was no bigger contribution to our American psyche than what took place on the evening of January 27, 1991. We were ten days into the Persian Gulf War, a country unnerved and weary. The field at Tampa Stadium was electric because it was the Super Bowl, and if anything could ease our nation’s heavy hearts for a few hours, football’s finest hour was surely it. But no one wanted to cheer too loudly, no one wanted to breach human etiquette by smiling too broadly. It was the time of the great unknown, and our dominant generation did not know when it was appropriate to resume normalcy. A leader was needed, a conductor to steer the train down the tracks.
With over 79 million people tuning in to the ABC broadcast, Whitney stepped onto the field to a mild crowd. Draped in a red, white and blue tracksuit and her standard effervescent smile, the songstress strolled up to the podium and grabbed the mic. The announcer asked the audience to join in the “Honoring of America" and "Especially the brave men and women serving our nation in the Persian Gulf and throughout the world." The turf was athlete-free, replaced by military personnel dressed in their various uniforms to signify the solidarity amongst the different branches of service.
The rendition for what was to come was different than previous incarnations of the Star Spangled Banner. Longtime collaborator Rickey Minor was charged with orchestrating a version with jazz chords and a soulful, gospel rhythm. He took the song out of its standard waltz tempo and added an additional beat per measure, which would enable Houston to open up her lungs and 'breathe'. NFL brass initially feared that the rendition would be too flamboyant for wartime. Minor recalled that "They thought the harmonies were too different, that it was sacrilegious."
But in the face of doubt and uneasiness, fate stepped in.
As Whitney pulled the mic towards her angelic lips, magic happened. From the moment the words exited her mouth, triumphant and bold and pitch perfect, the audience mesmerized, trapped in a moment in time that seemed to linger forever. It was an explosion, a jaw dropping exhibition of a supernatural talent.
Even the casual Atheist saw God that night.
As the song came to a conclusion, Whitney thrusted her arms victoriously skyward as four F-16 fighter jets from the 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill Air Force Base soared above. And that leader, that train conductor we were all searching for had just told us that everything was going to be okay.
No one remembers who won that Super Bowl. Most cannot recall who played in the game three years ago. But everyone remembers the heaven sent performance of Whitney Houston. We will always remember. It was, as she once crooned so elegantly, one moment in time.